Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Conference aims to get our economy into growth

The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce is bringing together 400 of our top business leaders to use their collective will and help build on the early signs of commercial recovery

Ali Gayward of easyJet

This Thursday, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce is bringing over 400 business leaders together for a special day with one outcome in mind – getting the Northern Ireland economy growing again.

It's decided to draw on the collective will of businesses in Northern Ireland to build on the early recovery which has been witnessed over the last few months, according to Chamber chairman Mark Nodder.

"For the last few years all of us, almost without exception, have campaigned for the devolution of power to reduce corporation tax," he said.

"However, political reality has intervened in that campaign and the ultimate decision now waits on the far side of the vote on Scottish independence.

"That won't happen until autumn 2014 and while this battle remains very much alive, the Chamber of Commerce believe that we do need a parallel initiative, which is rolled out alongside the on-going political campaign on corporation tax."

Growing Something Brilliant is a campaign by the Chamber in partnership with headline sponsor Airtricity and supporting sponsors BDO, easyJet, NYSE Euronext and Pinsent Masons, and is designed to showcase the great businesses that we have in Northern Ireland, inspire more businesses to accelerate their growth and highlight how the government can help.

Here we give a snapshot from the conference's main supporters, who are all experts in their respective sectors, as they tell us how to grow something brilliant.

David Manning, director of corporate affairs, Airtricity

As Northern Ireland's No.1 business energy provider, we're working with businesses of all sizes, from SME to larger industrial and commercial manufacturers, so we're hearing daily the challenges facing our commercial gas and electricity customers.

Those challenges not only include those which every business faces daily but also include the more fundamental challenges facing sustainable economic growth and development that will create an environment that investors want to invest in, and from which the NI business community can position itself to capitalise on export opportunities.

At Airtricity we believe that for business to be in a position to grow something brilliant in Northern Ireland we need a particular focus on ensuring that the country has the infrastructure in place that can both deliver on policy targets and also provide the supporting network that will attract investment into Northern Ireland.

While we have a very solid energy policy framework there are challenges within the planning system to enable the delivery of the critical infrastructure, such as the North-South Interconnector as well as renewables investment, that will support sustained economic development here. While good progress has been made in the delivery of an improved planning environment, we believe that greater effort is needed in the energy space, and in particular greater political solidarity is required on the delivery of such critical infrastructure so as to ensure that economic growth in NI can flourish and grow brilliantly.

Jon Robson, CEO, NYSE Technologies

At NYSE Euronext we take innovation and entrepreneurial culture seriously. Our experience of operating in Northern Ireland to date has been extremely positive and we believe that our centre of excellence in Belfast is a focus of innovation, and will continue to contribute significantly to our success.

While the practicalities of setting up a business in any region can be challenging, we found we had great support from Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Government.

Our clients are global and the Belfast office is continually growing to meet the demands of the industry around the globe.

Belfast provides vital support to our business 24/7 from locations including Asia, New York, London and Paris.

We are fully supportive of the Growing Something Brilliant Initiative and NICC as they encourage other global companies setting up here in Belfast.

It's testament to our own success.

Investors can potentially join a growing cluster of world-class companies based in Belfast which is now on the map as a premier investment location.

Francis Martin, partner, BDO

With the continuing unravelling of the banking system, it is no secret that accessing finance is becoming more difficult for SMEs within the Northern Ireland marketplace.

With the economic climate continuing to impact on traditional forms of finance, there has been an increasing appetite to seek alternative sources of funding.

We are beginning to see changes in the way Northern Ireland businesses are being funded, evidenced for example by the introduction of the £50m mezzanine Growth Loan Fund in 2012 and the Small Business Loan Fund in 2013.

With revenue streams coming from institutions other than banks some businesses have been forced to diversify altogether and seek out other market opportunities in order to keep afloat.

In addition to mezzanine finance, we are also beginning to see significant interest by UK and Irish based equity funds in investing in Northern Ireland and the development of a number of new home-grown funds, including Co-Fund NI.

Northern Ireland Businesses must now embrace a range of bespoke creative solutions whenever traditional forms are simply no longer an option or can, at best, be only part of a funding solution.

Ali Gayward, easyJet's UK commercial manager

Keeping Northern Ireland connected to major cities across the UK and Europe is essential for growing something brilliant. Frequent, affordable air links to major trading partners is central to economic development and ensures Northern Ireland remains competitive for business and attractive to tourists.

Now easyJet connects Belfast International Airport with 23 destinations across Europe and carries 1.6 million visitors to Northern Ireland every year.

Ease of air access is a key factor contributing to investment decisions.

Thus international companies need to find it as easy as possible to access Northern Ireland.

Given the location of Northern Ireland in relation to its key markets and competitors, air connectivity is a central pillar of any economic development plans aimed at boosting economic output and social standards in the region. easyJet's network from Belfast enables easy and affordable links to key business centres in Europe, at a time when companies are seeking to reduce costs whilst growing their commercial enterprises overseas.

Paul McBride, head of the Belfast office of law firm Pinsent Masons, and partner in the corporate team

Strong data across a number of economic indicators – employment data, the purchasing manager index and retail – suggest that we are indeed moving back into growth, albeit slowly.

The question now for Northern Ireland businesses is: are you ready?

For so long now corporate strategies will have been focussed around continuing to trade through tough conditions, paying down debt and – for the lucky ones – building up cash reserves for a rainy day.

If the positive data is sustained, boardrooms across Northern Ireland must now ask themselves whether it is time for priorities to change.

Asset values remain attractive with vendor expectations more realistic after some difficult years.

That is true not just of the UK, but internationally.

For those companies with ambitions on the mainland and overseas, now may just be the time to take advantage.

The momentum that has been built up around positioning Northern Irish products and expertise in the international arena over recent years is paying dividends and should be applauded.

There are many Northern Irish companies – particularly in the pharmaceutical, technology, energy and infrastructure sectors – who are second to none and should have no fears about becoming actors on the world stage.

They have the quality and can access those markets with confidence if they choose their partners.

If the UK's economic improvement is reflected globally, effective leverage relationships could have a transformative effect as the business puts itself in the right place at the right time.

The opportunities are there for those who have the confidence to pursue them.